by Keri Willard-Crist
In December of 2008, tensions between Israel and the Gaza Strip erupted into war, forcing the indefinite postponement of one of Princeton Seminary’s new short-term classes—a January travel course that would have taken participants directly into the region of conflict. The trip was eventually rescheduled, and in early May Princeton Seminary professors F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp and Gordon Mikoski, along with the fourteen seminarians enrolled in (Un)Common Space: Contested Geographies—Holy Land, departed from Newark International Airport for Tel Aviv, Israel. Among them was dual-degree student Ryan Timpte.
The course was generously funded by the F.I.S.H. Foundation. It revolved around a discussion of the contested geographies of the Holy Land, taking the Seminary group on a twelve-day journey through the region with stops at natural geographies such as the Jordan River, the Mount of Olives, the Golan Heights, and the Temple Mount; and the man-made geographies of cities, including Nazareth, Capernaum, and Bethlehem. In Jerusalem the group visited holy sites and talked with the people who live there—conversations that seemed to lead inexorably to the Israel-Palestine question. “The fact that I now have faces to put with parts of the story—that we met people in Bethlehem, the West Bank, Palestinian Christians—just to have those faces makes me think about the conflict in that area of the world differently,” said Timpte. “It’s no longer enough just to say ‘Well, we’ve just got to be peaceful….’ The way I tell the story has to be complex.”
Timpte was drawn to PTS because of its dual-degree program. Though the degree is typically focused on youth ministry, Timpte is using courses for his M.A. to specialize in children’s ministry. Two years of modern Hebrew in college sparked a general interest in Israel, but Timpte had specific questions for this trip, such as how the ongoing conflict is affecting the lives of children. Less than a week into the journey, his passion for children’s ministry connected directly with the trip itinerary when Timpte had the opportunity to sit in on an Arabic writing class at Mar Elias elementary school in the town of Ibillin. Part of a Catholic consortium of schools, the elementary school serves a religiously diverse student body of more than 900.
“To see [the students] all sitting in one room, without a hint of frustration or tension or any kind of ‘us versus them’ mentality, was amazing,” said Timpte. “You go into the rest of the country and talk to anybody over the age of fifteen—or even younger—and there’s an automatic ‘we are right and they are wrong’ mentality, no matter which side they’re on,” he said. Yet Timpte saw hope at Mar Elias. By bringing together children from different faith backgrounds—only 30 percent of the student body is Christian—and by actively teaching reconciliation, Mar Elias is doing something concrete to interrupt the cycle of violence, beginning with the youngest generation. “God is doing things in other contexts that I will never see. I got a glimpse of that in Ibillin,” he said.
When Timpte returns to campus in the fall for his final year, he will bring with him the insight he gained while in Israel, which he’s confident will change his classroom interactions. “To know that the God we talk about in academic terms…is a living God doing things in other places makes me want to express that living God here, and to figure out ways to show how God is still moving and working and expressing love and hope in any place I go,” he said.
The class blog, which was authored by Timpte, is still available online at http://ptsinisrael.wordpress.com.